If there’s one, single “secret” to raising healthy calves, it’s the timely delivery of high-quality colostrum to every one of them.
We’re still learning about all the “goodies” colostrum delivers. A lot of emphasis is placed on immunoglobulins, particularly IgG, because they can be measured on-farm. We can assess IgG both in the colostrum itself, and by measuring serum total proteins from calf blood samples a few days later to determine if passive transfer of immunity was achieved.
But there also are a host of other beneficial ingredients in colostrum that are not as easily quantified. That “liquid gold” also provides important digestive enzymes, vitamins, and nutrients (particularly fat); along with bioactive compounds like peptides, insulin, insulin-like growth factor, and hormones that promote gut health and development.
As the dairy industry has evolved, the step between colostrum manufacturing in the cow and consumption by the calf has been delegated to humans. Modern dairy cows usually provide more volume at that first milking than calves are able to consume. Their colostrum also is less concentrated than that of their beef-cow cousins, because of that massive volume.
So, to ensure every calf receives the industry-recommended 4 quarts of colostrum within 4 hours of birth (for Holsteins), we intercede to perform the harvest and delivery. The risk of bacterial contamination becomes a factor here, so farms must have protocols in place to collect colostrum with sanitary procedures, then either feed or store it in a timely manner.
By taking custody of the colostrum, we also have the opportunity to prevent vertical diseases that otherwise would be passed from dam to offspring, like Johne’s disease, bovine leukemia virus (BLV), and mycoplasma.
Some farms have successfully developed procedures for pasteurizing colostrum to kill these organisms. But it is a tricky process, and it remains unknown whether pasteurization can successfully and consistently eliminate all of these pathogens. Plus, in the process, it is likely that pasteurization also destroys many of the beneficial elements present in fresh colostrum.
For cases in which colostrum is not available or vertical-disease prevention is desired, a spray-dried replacer made from pure colostrum is the best proxy for the real thing. In fact, it is the “real thing,” just in a different formulation.
Like pasteurization, spray drying does involve heating the colostrum, but not at temperatures high enough to denature its proteins. So, all the beneficial elements stay, while the risk of vertical disease transmission is eliminated. The timely delivery and correct dose of colostrum replacer also is very easy to manage.
Pure colostrum replacer also can be used in lower quantities to supplement on-farm colostrum that registers low IgG readings, or to mimic transition milk by adding it to regular milk feedings in the first week of life. These “post-day-1” feedings programs have shown to produce excellent results in calf health and performance, as they mimic the gradual transition from colostrum to whole milk that occurs in nature.
Other colostrum supplements and replacers may contain the prescribed levels of IgG, but they are not guaranteed to contain all of the other supportive elements contained in real colostrum. Their lower cost might also be emphasized.
But it is difficult to put a price on a product that contains all of the components that Mother Nature creates to set calves up for a healthy and productive life. Today’s heifer calves are carefully created and selected to become optimal replacements in the milking string. They deserve our very best efforts in supplying the immunity, nutrition, and husbandry to set them up for success.